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Our Neighbor, The Candidate - The Local East Village Blog - NYTimes.com


Our Neighbor, The Candidate


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Reshma SaujaniEast Village resident Reshma Saujani, right, is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the 14th Congressional District.

Only days before the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, Reshma Saujani knew she still had a big hill to climb in her bid to unseat Representative Carolyn Maloney from the 14th Congressional District seat that she has held for 18 years.

Ms. Saujani, 34, is a lawyer who lives in the East Village. Because she is a neighbor, The Local East Village sat down with her last week, and discussed her views on issues affecting East Village residents, as well as her stance on building a mosque near Ground Zero; Bill Clinton’s support of her opponent (Ms. Saujani is a former fund raiser for Hillary Rodham Clinton); her stance on a Florida pastor’s plan to burn the Quran; and her claims that Ms. Maloney hasn’t done enough for 9/11 first responders.

Ms. Maloney’s record and views can be found on her official Congressional Web page and her campaign Web site.

Q.

Many East Village residents are concerned about the increasing number of high-rise apartment buildings being built. What is your stance?

A.

Communities should be fully in control of their neighborhoods. While I understand that development is part of being in an urban city, community members should be actively engaged in what that looks like and involved in the decision-making process. In rezoned neighborhoods, developers constructing buildings that exceed height limits specified by zoning restrictions would be required to set aside 25 percent of their units to be affordable housing. Right now, in Dutch Kills, Queens, for example, developers can pay more to skirt zoning height restrictions — but are not forced to set aside any of those units for affordable housing.

Q.

How do you feel about the harrowing gap between people living in multi-million dollar apartments and people living in poverty in the East Village?

A.

It’s no longer a city for the middle class, and that needs to change. The disparity between the haves and the have-nots has grown so great in the past 10 years. This city demonstrates that more than any other city in the country. It was the middle class that built New York City, and I don’t think they feel they can stay here anymore. People are concerned in the East Village that if there are these multi-million dollar apartments, the rent prices will increase, and people won’t be able to afford apartments. We need to continue to have places that are affordable for young folks and seniors.

Q.

There are a significant number of college students in the neighborhood. What will you do to help them with financial aid?

A.

When I graduated college, I was $200,000 in debt. I couldn’t imagine, when I graduated, sitting on that debt and not finding a job. These kids in classrooms can’t even focus because they’re stressed about their financial situation. If this recession continues where we have 25 to 30 percent of college grads not finding jobs, I think we need to have real loan forgiveness programs.

Q.

How will you help the homeless in the East Village?

A.

Thirty percent of people in my district are homeowners. Most of us are renters. I’m a renter. We don’t have an advocate in Congress who’s going to argue for renters. People who have been in their homes for 10 or 15 years should get the same tax credits if they’re renters or homeowners.

Q.

You live in the East Village. What intrigues you about the neighborhood?

A.

It’s incredibly vibrant. I’ve been there about a year. It has a neighborhood feel… Every day, I go to Native Bean and get my breakfast. People really know each other. Supper is a staple for me; they have the best Italian food. I love lobster mac ‘n cheese at Poco and the veggie burger at Westville. The East Village has the best food!

Q.

There’s a vibrant Indian community in the neighborhood, and lots of Indian restaurants. As an Indian-American, do you have a strong relationship with the community there?

A.

I absolutely visit the restaurants and know them. This election has allowed me to get to know a lot of the community folks a little bit better. The Indian political community is very interesting. Most politicians say it’s the one community they haven’t figured out how exactly they’re organized. It’s still finding who its community leaders are. There’s no real organization that brings them together.
The ethnic diversity in the East Village is amazing. It’s representative of what people think when they think of New York. They say 78 percent of people in my district have a grandmother or grandfather born in another country. That’s what makes the city so beautiful.

Q.

Bed bugs — they’re a big deal in the East Village! Should the government get involved in helping the afflicted?

A.

It’s probably more of a city and a state issue but absolutely, it’s a concern! I know lots of my friends are frustrated about it and complain and suffer from it, especially in the East Village.

Q.

Do you support building a mosque near Ground Zero?

A.

I support it. We are a nation of religious freedom and tolerance and I don’t think there are boundaries around the right to pray. My parents came here and escaped persecution. They were kicked out of Uganda because they were Asians. What they found in this country was hope and opportunity. We should never compromise the fundamental principles that make up this nation.

Q.

Bill Clinton endorsed Carolyn Maloney. You were a former campaign fund raiser for Hillary. Did you take it as a slight?

A.

Absolutely not… I’m the new kid on the block. Carolyn’s been around for a really long time. I would say membership comes with its privileges. Bill and Hillary are independent people. Carolyn and the president have known each other for a long time. Hillary’s still a mentor of mine. I feel passionately about her, and I think she feels passionately about me. I wouldn’t be running this race if it wasn’t for her.

Q.

Mr. Clinton said Ms. Maloney “fought hard to get 9/11 first responders the health care they deserve,’’ but you’ve criticized that stance. Why?

A.

I commend Carolyn for the work she’s done, but the sick are still awaiting help. Year after year, she has looked these victims in the face and said, ‘A bill is passing.’ She hasn’t used her seniority to put pressure, for example on President Obama, to move forward with this bill. People want relief for the 9/11 victims. If I was in Washington or in Congress and facing a roadblock from obstructive Republicans who were standing in the middle of getting this done, I would bring my case to the court of the people.

Q.

After your debate with Ms. Maloney on Sept. 7 on WWRL 1600 radio, you said that if you didn’t win the primary, you “might not vote” on Nov. 2. Then you issued a statement saying you would. What changed your mind?

A.

Nothing changed my mind. It was a passionate debate. We were together for an hour and a lot of issues were discussed. I think I spoke out of passion. I’m going to vote for the Democratic nominee.

Q.

You were discussing Afghanistan at a public forum and were criticized for saying, “We went to Afghanistan because they attacked us.” Is that your stance on the war?

A.

Obviously, the Taliban attacked us, I know that… It’s time to get out… There isn’t a clear agenda on what our goal is in Afghanistan. Is it to make sure there’s a democratic regime? Is it to get rid of the Taliban? That doesn’t mean we need to continue to not offer non-military aid, to make sure that the women and the children who are suffering every single day don’t get the support.

Q.

But you do believe Afghanistan attacked us?

A.

No. We were attacked by Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan. I don’t think anyone would dispute that the reason why we went to Afghanistan was to send a message to the world that if you attack us, we will attack you back. But that was not to say the Afghani people attacked us.

Q.

What do you think of Rev. Terry Jones’ plan to burn the Quran?

A.

I think it’s disgusting and I’m glad he is not moving forward.

Q.

Was it his First Amendment right?

A.

No. I don’t see it as a First Amendment issue. I think the way [Gen. David] Petraeus and Hillary [Clinton] have talked about this is that it’s a national security issue. The world is watching us.

Q.

So he didn’t have the right.

A.

I guess I’m not going to comment on that.

Q.

So… you just think it has nothing to do with the First Amendment.

A.

My perspective is that it’s not a First Amendment issue. It’s an act that demonstrates it’s not who we are as a country. I suppose legally speaking, yes, he has a right to do it, under the First Amendment, just like you have a right to burn a flag under the First Amendment. But I think it’s just inciting violence and hatred and it’s wrong.

Q.

Why should young voters choose you?

A.

I’m super idealistic. I believe that individuals, movements and groups can change the world. We’re on the field — we don’t know what’s going to happen on Tuesday. Everything we’ve done has been very untraditional… I feel like I’m kicking open the door, and it’s like the Verizon commercial, there are a thousand people standing behind me. Our generation, we feel like that with everything.

Q.

If you lose in the primaries, will we see you in politics again?

A.

I will run for this seat again — the very next day.

What do you think of Ms. Saujani’s political positions? Does she have enough experience to take on the job? Does she have your vote?
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